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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, August 9, 2001

Firefighters acquire new 'eye'

By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Honolulu Fire Department this month plans to unveil an airborne heat-detecting camera that can peer through the dark for lost hikers and pinpoint hot spots in smoldering brushfires.

The camera, called the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), will hang from the nose of the department's Air 1 helicopter and will be able to detect minute differences in heat from heights up to 1,000 feet, officials said.

Officials said the round, 360-degree rotating camera is similar to a camera on the Honolulu Police Department's helicopter. The camera is highly sensitive and acts as visual thermometer that can pick up body heat.

The camera can also transmit video images to ground command centers, which will allow commanders to make critical decisions after viewing a complete, bird's eye view of a fire operation such as a raging brushfire.

"It's the latest in technology," said Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi. "It allows us to work smarter and use our resources wisely. It adds another dimension to our department."

The camera is the latest addition to the department, which has added a fire-fighting platform truck, 10 hand-held heat-detecting cameras, a 22-foot rescue boat, two Hazmat trucks, a jet boat, jet ski and four underwater scooters.

Air 1 pilot Steve Aiu said the department tested the camera flying over Ala Moana, Punchbowl and 'Aiea, and successfully transmitted video images to department headquarters on Koapaka Street.

The $186,541 camera system can penetrate haze and smoke, officials said, but it can't see through water, thick mud and solid objects.

"A person's temperature is 98.6 degrees; foliage is a little bit less," Aiu said. "If we can get different heat signatures, we can identify targets.

"There needs to be a certain percentage of heat difference," Aiu continued. "If someone is hiding underneath trees, it won't pick up. They have to be uncovered."

The camera can be used day or night, but officials said the sensors will be more effective during a cooler or cloudy day, where temperatures vary in greater degrees.

Aiu said the camera would have been beneficial in the Sacred Falls rockslide that killed eight people and 50 injured on Mother's Day 1999. Aiu said the airborne camera would have helped officials see the entire valley and evaluate the scene from a safe distance.

"The aircraft can transmit the pictures back rather than putting people in the area," Aiu said. "It doesn't put too many people at risk."

Officials will unveil the camera Aug. 20 at the department's Charles H. Thurston Training Center.